I was in a Russian coffee shop the other day with a friend of mine. He’s interning with us for a year. I really like him. I was asking him how he thought the team was. I ask this question a lot, both to hear from team mates and get their insight, and to train them to key into the welfare of the community they serve with. One of the things he had been noticing was that this winter – the worst the City has seen in over 20 years – is really wearing the families down. Along with it has been a severe, weeks-long, debilitating flu that has rolled through every family, and that hasn’t quite let go of us. He’s right.
I’ve been putting off writing the first post for this blog because I wanted the first one to be bright and inspiring. I might be waiting a while, and I think Jesus told me to get this thing up and running. So, we’re starting with this one. I’m currently in a period of melancholy – melancholy owing to seasonal affective disorder (google it if you need to), sickness, the “Anger Phase” of cultural adaptation, and I’m sure there’s something wrong inside my heart. I can feel it, but don’t quite have a finger on it, yet.
Anyway, I agreed with my friend. Winter is wearing us down, and it’s supposed to get worse. Lots of expats are leaving the City, leaving Narnya right now. For lots of reasons. I’m not judging at all. Could be they are being re-deployed. But in our conversation, I found myself talking about how freeing it is – how very good-news it is – that Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, they must first deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”
Sometimes we act like as we follow Jesus, slowly-slowly we become the kind of people who can deny ourselves and take up our crosses. But that is not at all what Jesus said. He said that if someone wants to follow him, they must first deny themselves (one time, settled decision), and then daily choose to embrace how that works out. This is the prerequisite to discipleship. This is the entrance, not the goal. Without this settled decision, Jesus will not take you on as his student. Without this settled disposition of self-denial, you can’t really learn much from him. He was clear about this, and that clarity is a ruthless kindness.
And that’s actually really good news. When I decided to follow Jesus, when I understood this call this way, I decided that my survival is not the end goal. I decided that my story is not about what happens to me. I settled it once for all that I don’t have to make it out of this life in one piece. And every day, I get to choose to embrace the consequences of that decision. This isn’t because I’m some kind of super-commando. In fact, I’m kind of a wuss. It’s because I’m a disciple of the Man who chose the cross, and the student is not above his teacher. I can either think like this, or I can be another man’s disciple instead.
But, really, this way of living is easier than the alternative. It’s freeing. Right now, I don’t like my life. I wouldn’t mind a different one. Every day – literally – something goes wrong. Every attempt I make at intentionality is thwarted. I talk like an idiot. I make cultural mistakes constantly. I moved here in my prime – that is, I was in my prime, good at what I did, and now I am TERRIBLE at everything I try. I don’t like it here right now. And, really, I may never.
And I’m okay with that. No amount of hardship will make me leave. If I get cancer, I won’t just assume I’m supposed to go back to the States. I’ll ask Jesus. And I’ll do what he says. If things keep getting harder, if I keep getting sadder, or more numb, that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not we stay the course here or go. That’s the freeing thing. What happens to me is significant, and I feel it (sometimes too much), but I’m perfectly free to set that aside as I make decisions about what to do day to day and week to week because Jesus saved me from my own survival when he demanded that before I ever call myself his student, I settle it once for all that what happens to me is not going to be the central plot of my story. I denied myself. That’s finished, and thank God, I don’t have to wrangle with that ever again.
I don’t have to deal with questions like how much is too much?, how long?, when is enough enough?, where’s the line? The line is miles back and years ago, and I’ve already crossed it. I’m dead already. And thank God, because if I had to make decisions in light of my feelings, my family would have the most erratic course ever, and I’d never know if I was being faithful.
I think this is what it means when Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. People say that the metaphor suggests that you and Jesus are paired up pulling a plow, but that’s just not right. That interpretation comes from the American farming world. The ancient Near Eastern interpretation of the yoke-metaphor is one of kingship. When we embrace him as King, his demands are light, and we find rest for our tired, beat-up souls in obeying him. The same guy that says, “You see that cross on that hill? That’s your future if you follow me, and you need to decide right now, before you take the first step, that you’re okay with that,” is the guy who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s easy because the questions that others have to deal with, the questions that can literally pull you in two, never need to trouble the sleep of a student of Jesus. I don’t have to accomplish the mission and come back alive. I’m already dead.
Something is wrong in my circumstances. In this City, that’s ALWAYS the case. And something is wrong these days in my heart. But, even that can be dealt with because the pre-requisite self-denial is settled and sealed. I am dead already.
Praise God, and hallelujah.